Rabat- Jailed Hirak activist Nasser Zefzafi, one of the finalists of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, has not won the award.
The European Parliament awarded the prize to Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director serving 20 years in a Russian prison, on Thursday. The award ceremony will take place in Strasbourg on December 12.
Zefzafi, Sentsov, and 11 NGOs working to save migrants in the Mediterranean Sea were the three finalists voted by members of the European Parliament in the foreign affairs and development committees.
The €50,000 prize goes to Sentsov as this year’s recipient of Sakharov prize, for his “exceptional contribution” to human rights around the world, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) in the EU Parliament said Thursday.
Moroccans have been anticipating Zefzafi’s win after he was shortlisted as one of the finalists. Some friendly to the Hirak movement hoped that the activist’s nomination would keep international attention on the sentenced Hirak activists.
The EU Parliament’s Group of the United Left initially nominated Zefzafi for the second time in hopes that the nomination would “raise the profile” of the Hirak case and “the demands of protesters,” as leftist MP Marie-Christine Vergiat stated. The group previously nominated Zefzafi in 2017.
“With this nomination we want to show our solidarity with the Moroccan people demanding social justice, human rights and dignity … Mr Zefzafi is a spokesperson for the Hirak movement in Morocco’s Rif region. We demand the release of [Hirak] prisoners of conscience,” Vergiat said.
Established in 1988 in honor of Soviet physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought honors individuals and groups of people who have dedicated their lives to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought.
Zefzafi, leader of Hirak movement
The United Left’s first nomination of Zefzafi in 2017 came after Ahmed Zefzafi, Nasser’s father, toured Europe to raise support for his son’s liberation.
Ahmed Zefzafi spoke at the European Parliament to advance the cause of the Hirak Rif and raise awareness of the conditions of his son and others arrested with him.
The parliamentary deputy promised Zefzafi’s father then that he would receive his son Nasser immediately after his release.
Moroccan authorities arrested, Zefzafi in May 2017. A court in Casablanca sentenced him, along with three other activists, to 20 years in prison on June 26, a sentence he is appealing.
The court handed down sentences varying from 1 to 20 years to 54 Hirak activists, for participating in the “unauthorized” Hirak protests.
The Hirak movement began in October 2016 after the death of Mohcine Fikri, an Al Hoceima fishmonger who was crushed to death in a garbage truck while trying to save his goods that had been confiscated by authorities.
The incident angered many, causing protests across the country, especially in Al Hoceima province, which condemned Fikri’s death and social disparities in Morocco. Police arrested an estimated 400 activists and protesters involved in the protests in 2016 and 2017.
Following the court’s sentencing in June, hundreds of Moroccans rallied in protests in cities across the country, including Casablanca, Rabat, and the northern city of Nador, to denounce the “heavy” sentences.
International NGOs and politicians, including Head of Government Saad Eddine El Othmani, expressed solidarity with the activists. El Othmani regretted that his government could not intervene in the Hirak Rif case, because the judiciary is an independent authority.
On August 21, King Mohammed VI reportedly pardoned 184 Hirak prisoners. Zefzafi was not one of them.
Ordeal in Oukacha prison
Eight days after being sentenced to 20 years, Zefzafi and other Hirak activists refused to appeal their sentences and went on a temporary hunger strike.
Hirak activist Rabie El Ablaq reportedly went on a hunger strike for more than 40 days, but suspended it in July.
Meanwhile, Zefzafi began another hunger strike that lasted six days to protest “torture” and “harassment” he said he experiences in Casablanca’s Oukacha prison.
Zefzafi’s father announced his son’s hunger strike in a video posted on August 30, stating that Zefzafi “only asks for the rights that other prisoners enjoy: that he be taken out of isolation in a solitary cell and put him in a dignified cell where he can see and talk” with the other jailed activists.
In July, all of the detained activists, appealed their sentences, except Rabie El Ablaq.
Hirak: domestic yet international?
The Hirak activists’ case has made international headlines and captured the attention of world leaders and NGOs who denounced the sentences, saying that the activists were merely demanding their rights.
Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok made remarks about the Hirak case in a press briefing after his April meeting with Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Bourita.
He stated that the Moroccan government “had not been effective in responding to the grievances of the people who took to the streets.”
Blok also presented a report earlier this month to the Dutch Parliament, condemning the Hirak sentences and commenting on King Mohammed VI’s royal pardon, which excluded Zefzafi.
According to Bourita, the report contains inaccurate facts and is a direct interference in Morocco’s domestic affairs, stemming from a lack of respect for the country’s judicial system.
Morocco rejected Blok’s remarks twice. Bourita stressed that the situation in Morocco’s Rif region is not a diplomatic issue but a domestic one.
2018 Sakharov Prize winner Oleg Sentsov
Oleg Sentsov, the winner of the 2018 Sakharov Prize, bears several similarities to Nasser Zefzafi.
Like Zefzafi, Sentsov is serving a 20-year prison sentence, in the far northern Yamalo-Nenets region of Russia.
A filmmaker and writer, Sentsov is a native of Crimea who opposed Russia’s takeover of the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014.
Russia arrested Sentsov in Crimea and sentenced him on charges of terrorism in 2014.
Senstov went on a hunger strike in the same year, protesting Russia’s “political” imprisonment of 65 Ukrainians.
Sentsov ended another hunger strike on October 6 this year. His strike lasted for 145 days to avoid being fed forcefully by prison authorities, according to the international press.
The president of the EU Parliament, Antonio Tajani, stated, “Through his courage and determination, by putting his life in danger, the filmmaker Oleg Sentsov has become a symbol of the struggle for the release of political prisoners held in Russia and around the world.”
The Sakharov Prize awarded the filmmaker to express “its solidarity with him and his cause. We ask that he be released immediately. His struggle reminds us that it is our duty to defend human rights everywhere in the world and in all circumstances,” Tajani said.